Taxing the rich October article

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    “Politicians are uniting to combat international tax avoidance and tax evasion schemes. We already see that there are efforts to unify different countries’ tax codes to close down loopholes that enable various methods of dodging local taxes.”

    Taxing the Rich

    136 countries propose a 15% global minimum corporate tax rate.

    Susana Ruiz, tax policy lead at Oxfam International, said in a scathing statement. “Calling this deal ‘historic’ is hypocritical and does not hold up to even the most minor scrutiny.”


    “The Socialist Party takes the uncommon, but very much the orthodox Marxist position that the ultimate burden of taxation, despite a few minor exceptions, falls upon the capitalist class.”

    Well, I can agree about the “uncommon” bit, though “unique”
    would be more accurate. On what evidence from Marx (or Engels) do you claim that the SP position on taxation is “orthodox Marxism?” Marx wrote very little on taxation. Most Marxist economists say little or nothing about Marx’s views on taxation. But what he did write – mainly in his journalism and letters – suggests a position at odds with the SP position. Take for example Marx writing on the Prussian monarchy in 1847: “The monarchy, like every other form of state, is a direct burden on the working class on the material side only in the form of taxes. Taxes are the existence of the state expressed in economic terms.” And here is Marx excoriating Whig finance policy in 1853: “…it lightens the burdens of the rich and increases the burdens of the poor. As to saying that the Income Tax does not effect the working man, it is a patent absurdity, for under our present social system of employer and employed, the middle class man generally indemnifies himself for additional taxation in diminished wages or increased prices.”

    What these two examples indicate is that Marx acknowledged the importance of tax as a burden on the working class and the poor generally. And reading them in the wider context it is clear that Marx (and Engels) had a strong preference for direct over indirect taxation, largely for the reason that many do today: indirect taxation (on consumption) is inherently regressive, direct taxation (on income) is not. Despite the different tax landscape in Marx’s time compared to the present, the principles governing tax policy and debate are much the same. To say that the SP position on tax is “very much the orthodox Marxist position” is a nonsense.


    I based it upon what Marx in 1847:

    “If all taxes which bear on the working class were abolished root and branch, the necessary consequence would be the reduction of wages by the whole amount of taxes which goes into them. Either the employers’ profit would rise as a direct consequence by the same quantity, or else no more than an alteration in the form of tax-collecting would have taken place. Instead of the present system, whereby the capitalist also advances, as part of the wage, the taxes which the worker has to pay, he [the capitalist] would no longer pay them in this roundabout way, but directly to the state.” – Criticism and Critical Morality.

    But I am no Marxologist nor economist and if he says differently elsewhere, I bow to your own expertise as I always do to the Standard’s editors.

    My own criticism of the SPGB case that what constitutes workers pay necessarily includes what they require to pay the State in taxes (albeit from the surplus value extracted) and therefore it is the employer who has to add that amount to the subsistence level of wages with taxes being simply another element of the cost of living.

    But wages are a unique commodity and the price of labour-power is determined by class struggle and therefore there exists a time-lag where employees must engage with the capitalist class to compensate for any increases in taxes, and also resist employers lowering (or more likely freezing wage levels) when tax cuts benefit us.

    Our pay is not automatically adjusted and the tax burden immediately transferred to the capitalist class. For some years and for some sections of workers, we do suffer the pain of taxation directly. At rare times, we might temporarily enjoy some relief.


    I’m looking forward to ALB’s contribution to this thread.


    Ironically both Alan and PGB are quoting from the same 1847 Marx article.

    I am not sure how PGB missed the key passage which states the situation from the point of view of what is now called Marxian Economics (and of Classical Political Economy).

    Writing in 1847 Marx would have had in mind indirect taxes on the goods workers bought not a direct tax on their wages. No workers paid that then. In fact
    capitalists didn’t either.

    That taxation is not a burden on the working class is a consequence of the “Law of Wages” which states that the price of labour power tends to reflect the money cost of creating and maintaining it. Insofar as paying taxes is part of this cost then this will be reflected in the price of labour power, by increasing it. Another corollary of this Law is the opposite — that anything paid to the wage worker or provided for them free will have the effect of decreasing the price of labour power as it reduces the money cost of reproducing it.

    So while taxes that workers pay are passed on to the employer as higher money wages (so that in effect they are a burden on employers), monetary and non-monetary benefits paid to workers benefit employers (as this reduces the money wages they need to pay).

    Some provisos:

    1. We are talking about the working class as a class and so the average cost of reproducing and maintaining labour power and not about individual workers.

    2. The Law of Wages is not an “iron law” but can be influenced by the struggles of workers. They can bring about a wage rise quicker than market forces otherwise would and they can delay a fall and maybe prevent it falling as far as it otherwise would. Changes in the cost of reproducing labour power brought about by changes in taxes, up or down, are not automatically immediately reflected in changing money wages.

    3. The wealth which goes to the government as taxes comes ultimately from the unpaid labour of the working class, even if only indirectly via the employing class.

    As to the claim in the 1853 article Marx wrote for the American newspaper that “under our present social system of employer and employed, the middle class man generally indemnifies himself for additional taxation in diminished wages or increased prices,” it is wrong.

    According to his own economic writings, employers cannot arbitrarily reduce wages below the cost of reproducing labour power (at least not for long without negative consequences such as reduced productivity). Nor can they arbitrarily raise their prices; they can only pass on a tax on what they sell if that’s what the market can bear (and if it can’t and they raise the price they will lose trade). In both cases, they have bear the burden of taxes.

    I am guessing that Marx wrote that article for the money and was writing what he thought the editor would like his readers to read. But, anyway, that passage is wrong.


    Couple of things:
    ‘Writing in 1847 Marx would have had in mind indirect taxes on the goods workers bought not a direct tax on their wages. No workers paid that then. In fact
    capitalists didn’t either.’

    Capitalists did pay ‘land tax’ didn’t they?

    ‘I am guessing that Marx wrote that article for the money and was writing what he thought the editor would like his readers to read. But, anyway, that passage is wrong.’

    Marx has been accused of many things to which we now have to add a lack of integrity?


    I didn’t mean that capitalists didn’t pay any direct taxes, only that they didn’t pay income tax. I meant to say that most capitalists didn’t as income tax was intermittent in most countries up to the 1850s.

    Ok, my guess as to why Marx wrote that is unfair. He must have believed it but that doesn’t detract from the fact that he was wrong.


    I have finally tracked the article down and my guess was completely wrong. It was not written for the New York Daily Tribune but for the People’s Paper and was published there on 23 April 1853. So it was not written for money at all. It was an expression of his political views or at least those of the remnant of the Chartists. It doesn’t make his claim any more correct though.

    If a tax is imposed on capitalist employers they cannot simply pass this on either as a reduction in wages or as a rise in the price of what they are selling. They might be able to but only if market conditions allowed this; which is not always the case.


    I think the real point with taxation is that it is for the up-keep of the State and to provide for government spending.

    How often do we see in the media that it is the “tax-payer” who bears the cost of the budget for government policies and when they squander it away wastefully.

    The “tax-payer” is equated with the public generally, those who pay income tax and other indirect taxes such as VAT purchase taxes as well as excise on tobacco and alcohol.

    The political intent is to make the State appear as “our” government because we “pay” for it. And therefore it should do what it is told.

    It is also why many get upset with tax evasion or avoidance and view it as cheating and theft.

    The recent international agreement between nations on 15% corporate tax indicates that the world capitalist class are trying to regulate international finance as they do with WTO rules and GATT regulations.

    And it is presented as a benefit to working people who will now “share” in the higher government revenue that would otherwise be transferred off-shore.

    It is not seen as an inter-capitalist dispute over who pays the price for what Marx called the “executive” committee of the collective capitalist class.

    The reason we highlight taxes being a concern for the employing owning class is to demonstrate the class control of the State. It is not merely because of sociological factors of who becomes politicians or through lobbying and Party donations but all comes down to who maintains the State income.

    But we also have to highlight that ultimately everything the capitalist class spends in expenses comes from the surplus-value it extracts or has extracted from the labour of the working class to preserve itself and to ensure the smooth running of capitalist economics via credit and interest to banks, the rent to the land-owners and property giants, and the necessary auxiliary industries to capitalism, lawyers, advertisers and so forth. And, of course, the taxes to governments for law and order and national defence.

    But it all seems counter-intuitive to workers who aren’t aware of the Law of value regards wages. For the populist leftists, they conveniently neglect the economic theory and focus on the emotive appeal and the morality of “good and bad” capitalism rather than add complications to their campaigns.


    AJ: Your quote from Marx 1847 is from the same source as mine, but I fail to see how it has any bearing on the SP position on tax which says that the burden of tax falls upon the capitalist and not upon the worker. Marx’s comments are directed against the Prussian state monarchy where in 1847 around 40% of tax was indirect (a tax on consumption goods) and only 29% was direct (a tax on income). In advanced capitalist states today, the position is more than reversed. Marx and Engels both took a strong line against any attempt by the state to alter the tax take by increasing the tax on consumption goods and lowering the tax on income, clearly because this would disadvantage the worker and the poor generally but give advantage to the capitalist. In Marx’s example wages would be reduced “if all taxes bearing on the working class were abolished root and branch.” That’s because the worker’s wage, being at a minimum, would have to cover the tax on workers’ consumption goods since the tax is included in the price of those goods (a tax on flour, a tax on bread, a tax on beer etc.) So in Marx’s hypothetical example, the removal of all these taxes would of course reduce the worker’s wage by the same amount he needed before to pay tax on his consumption goods. The employer’s profit would rise by the same amount (all other things being equal) because he now has lower labour costs. Marx’s alternative scenario is much more realistic: the employer now pays the worker’s tax directly to the state, so the employer now becomes a tax collector – what Marx refers to as “an alteration in the form of tax collecting.”
    His profit levels remain the same and the worker’s real wage remains the same. But my question still is: what has any of this to do with SP position on tax? The only sense in which one can speak of a “burden” is the burden placed on the employer now that he has to collect the worker’s tax and pass it directly to the state.

    I don’t have much to say about your other paras. AJ. You are looking at the tax issue arising from a change in tax where TU action can shift any tax increase on the worker onto the employer – as can happen. Of course, the employer can then shift it onto the consumer by raising prices, so the initial tax impact shifts from the worker to the capitalist to the consumer (who if poor may not have any protection, being outside the class struggle). In the long term tax ends up being borne by people who are least able to transfer it to another group or jurisdiction (the SP as far as I am aware sees this process of tax burden transfer in a limited way because it ends with the capitalist).

    ALB: I am uncertain what you mean when you say “(I) have missed the key passage which states the situation from the point of view of what is now called Marxian Economics ..etc.” You cannot be referring to the source (MECW Vol. 6) used by myself and AJ, because no such passage can be found there. I didn’t know Marx had a “Law of Wages”. I know about the so-called “Iron Law of Wages” which as you know Marx rightly rubbished. Marx certainly had a theory of wages, which is derived from his Labour Theory of Value because the economic relation between capital and labour is an exchange relation. None of the old-time Marxist political economists (Dobb, Meek, Sweezy) refer to Marx’s “Law of Wages” as far as I know. I agree as you say that the price of labour power tends to reflect the money cost of creating and maintaining it, and if taxes are part of this cost then that would be reflected in the total money cost of wage goods. You then say that the taxes that workers pay are “passed on” to the employer and it is this that in effect constitutes the “burden” on employers. But this is to use “burden” in a completely different sense to how it is conventionally used in any discourse on tax, because there “burden” refers to the actual “imposition” of tax on the employer, not the mere “passing on” to the state. Your sense of burden on the capitalist is no burden at all, because he is merely a collector and passer-on of the tax paid by the worker out of the worker’s gross wage who continues to suffer the real burden of paying tax on his wages.

    Re your provisos: 1 and 2 I agree with. On no. 3 I agree that taxes on capitalists come from surplus value as does all profit, rent and interest. But a tax on workers comes out of their wages, which are not part of surplus value. Unless of course you mean that workers pay all taxes because labour alone produces all wealth. But that is just a truism having no explanatory value IMO. As to the claim in the 1853 article re “the middle class man generally indemnifies himself..etc”. it is an anomalous statement I guess, but I thought Marx is referring to how the middle class man can transfer his own tax imposition by paying his employees less and so maintain his level of profits, or he can increase the price of the goods he sells. So he can “indemnify himself.” The worker however has no such luck, because he cannot transfer his tax imposition or burden on to anyone (except he may via the class struggle – but this is 1853 after all). Of course as ALB indicates, we need to add an “all other things being equal” caveat to that.


    I readily concede that I am no expert in Marxian economics. I am persuaded that by the argument that the employer acts as the de facto tax-collector for the state and that wages reflect the cost of living including taxation (although the non-smoker tee-totaller benefits from his or her consumer habit)

    Perhaps these quotes acquired crudely acquired by Google search might be of use for those more informed than myself

    Question 17: What will be your first measure once you have established democracy?
    Answer: Guaranteeing the subsistence of the proletariat.
    Question 18: How will you do this?
    Answer. I. By limiting private property in such a way that it gradually prepares the way for its transformation into social property, e. g., by progressive taxation, limitation of the right of inheritance in favour of the state, etc., etc.

    “…There might, in fact, another question he raised. It might be asked, whether a man who earns say 12 cents a day can be fairly expected to pay 1 cent with the same ease with which another, earning $12 a day, pays $1? Both would relatively contribute the same aliquot part of their income, but still the tax might bear in quite different proportions upon their respective necessities. Yet, Mr. Bright has not yet put the question in these terms, and, if he had, the comparison between the burden of taxation, borne by the British wages laborer on the one hand, and the British capitalist on the other, would perhaps have struck nearer home than the comparison between Indian and British taxation…”

    Direct and indirect taxation
    (a) No modification of the form of taxation can produce any important change in the relations of labour and capital.

    (b) Nevertheless, having to choose between two systems of taxation, we recommend the total abolition of indirect taxes, and the general substitution of direct taxes. [In Marx’s rough manuscript, French and German texts are: “because direct taxes are cheaper to collect and do not interfere with production”.]

    Because indirect taxes enhance the prices of commodities, the tradesmen adding to those prices not only the amount of the indirect taxes, but the interest and profit upon the capital advanced in their payment

    Because indirect taxes conceal from an individual what he is paying to the state, whereas a direct tax is undisguised, unsophisticated, and not to be misunderstood by the meanest capacity. Direct taxation prompts therefore every individual to control the governing powers while indirect taxation destroys all tendency to self-government.


    1. Thanks, PGB, for conceding that Marx’s statement in that 1853 article was “anomalous” compared with his other writings on wages. I still don’t know why he wrote it. It seems to have been in answer to a claim by Gladstone in his budget speech that his changes to Income Tax would not “touch upon the ranks of labour”. Marx political comment is even stranger as in the previous sentence he (or the People’s Paper) said that “our” preference would be for a graduated income tax. But why call for any Income Tax if you think that employers are going to pass this on to workers as reduced wages? The whole argument is a mess, not to say a patent absurdity.

    2. You say that Marx didn’t have a “law of wages” and that Dobb, Meek, Sweezey etc never used the term. Maybe they didn’t (I don’t know) but people in the Marxist tradition would have been reluctant to use it in the light of Marx’s demolition of the “Iron Law of Wages” in 1875 in The Critique of the Gotha Programme. But there was one who wasn’t — Engels. In 1881 he wrote a series of articles for the trade-union paper, the Labour Standard. In both the article on “The Wages System” and the one on “Trade Unions” he uses the term “law of wages” 3 times in each of them. In a later article (on “The Wages Theory of the Anti Corn Law League”) he succinctly defines this law as that “the rate of wages is determined by the price of those commodities which enter into the habitual and necessary consumption of the labourer. In other words, all other things remaining unchanged, wages rise and fall with the price of the necessaries of life.”

    But makes it clear that it is not an “iron” law:

    “The law of wages, then, is not one which draws a hard and fast line. It is not inexorable with certain limits. There is at every time (great depression excepted) for every trade a certain latitude within which the rate of wages may be modified by the results of the struggle between the two contending parties.”

    3. You claim that in saying that the “burden” of taxes on wages is passed on to the employer we are using the word “burden” in an unusual sense. Not so. Here, for instance, is how Wikipedia defines it:

    “In economics, tax incidence or tax burden is the effect of a particular tax on the distribution of economic welfare. Economists distinguish between the entities who ultimately bear the tax burden and those on whom tax is initially imposed.”

    Sometimes our case on taxes in put as “the workers don’t pay taxes” but this is not the case. They do pay some taxes directly out of their own pocket (eg car tax, council tax). Our case is that, insofar as paying such taxes enters into the general average money cost of living as a worker, it raises the money wage employers pay. That is why we are careful to say instead that “taxation is not a burden on the working class”. It is also correct to say that the “burden” of taxes on workers is passed on to employers since, after the adjustment, the workers’ standard of living is restored to what it was before. It is not affected. Employers, on the other hand, end up paying higher wages; which reduces the profits they retain.

    The Classical Political Economist (and capitalist and MP), David Ricardo put the position clearly in 1817 in opening pararaph to chapter 16 of his Principles of Political Economy and Taxation,:

    “Taxes on wages will raise wages, and therefore will diminish the rate of the profits of stock. We have already seen that a tax on necessaries will raise their prices, and will be followed by a rise of wages. The only difference between a tax on necessaries, and a tax on wages is, that the former will necessarily be accompanied by a rise in the price of necessaries, but the latter will not; towards a tax on wages, consequently, neither the stock-holder, the landlord, nor any other class but the employers of labour will contribute. A tax on wages is wholly a tax on profits, a tax on necessaries is partly a tax on profits, and partly a tax on rich consumers. The ultimate effects which will result from such taxes then, are precisely the same as those which result from a direct tax on profits.”


    Just to close the file on this question of whether our position on taxes and wages is or is not in accordance with “Marxian” economics, a couple of quotes.

    1. From Bax and Quelch A New Catechism of Socialism. First published 1903. 6th edition 1909

    “But do not the working class pay the rates and taxes?
    No. Rates and taxes are paid out of the surplus-value taken from the workers by their exploiters. As already explained, the return to the workers — their wages — is determined by their cost of subsistence, regulated by competition in the labour market; consequently they have nothing wherewith to pay taxes, and whether these be high or low, or whoever has to pay them directly, the position of the worker remains the same. He gets, on the average, his subsistence, that is all.”

    2. From the entry on “Taxation” in the glossary of words on the Marxist Internet Archive:

    “Workers naturally resent income tax and indirect taxes that add to their cost of living, and any increase in these will obviously impact on their living standard at the time the increase is introduced. In the longer term however, the level of taxation does not affect the level of wages; rather, the level of taxes determines the division of the surplus between capitalist, landlord, banker and state – all of whom are supported by the working class.”


    What does “burden” mean in a discourse on taxation? Reading the SPGB position (from the FAQ webpage) I learn that “In the long run, taxes are a burden on the capitalist class only”. So what I logically infer from this is that taxes are not a burden on the working class. So I then reasonably assume that, according to the SP, the workers don’t actually “pay” income tax because it is reasonable for people to think that if you actually “pay” for something you bear the cost (the burden). But ALB says that this is not the SP case. So what I now infer is that although workers do indeed pay tax, the amount of tax they pay is – in the long run – passed on or transferred to the capitalist, which then means that it is the capitalist only who bears the burden of tax initially paid by the worker. This formulation does agree with the conventional meanings given to tax burden or tax incidence, which can be read in any one of a number of dictionaries of economics or, as ALB has indicated, from Wikipedia.

    Now when SPers unpack this formulation to show how valid it is, I have noticed that they always use the example of a change in tax, like a tax increase or a tax cut – which is the sort of thing at the centre of so-called “tax reform” by the state. In that context, the SP position is coherent because it adverts to two factors to explain why, say, a new tax impost on workers’ wages will eventually be transferred to the capitalist: the operation of the Marxist “law of value”; and the effect of collective action of workers via TUs to force the capitalist employer to increase their money wages . The successful outcome (never automatically guaranteed of course) is that the workers net wage after the new impost returns to its pre- impost level and real wages therefore are restored (assuming no price increases in the meantime). And the capitalist now bears the burden of the tax increase that initially was imposed upon the worker. I have no problem with that. But hang on – what about the bulk of the tax I regularly pay to the state? That hasn’t changed. Like, where I live, average FT weekly earnings are around $1,700 and the average tax (at 24%) on that would be around $400. A tax increase from 24% to say 25.5% would raise my weekly tax burden by around $33. Now, as explained, the typical SP response to this tax increase would be to say that ultimately or in the long run, the burden of that $33 would fall upon the capitalist. Accepting the major assumptions behind this reasoning, I agree. But what about other $400? This hasn’t been passed on to anyone, so the burden of the workers tax doesn’t fall upon the capitalist.

    I have never read any convincing answer to this question. Because any answer to it invariably must focus on the difference between gross and net income, most responses I have read treat (or are logically compelled to regard) gross income as something of a “mystery” or as “unreal”. Which of course it isn’t. So this response cannot resolve the problem of understanding what is meant when you say that “the burden of tax falls upon the capitalist”, when your average worker knows that it doesn’t. The upshot of all this is that we are bound to expect a response of incomprehension or failure to understand when workers respond to the SP position on tax. As some evidence for this, I recently listened to the SP’s FAQ The Tax Argument (Pt.1) where the lead speaker refers to the tax issue as a “well-worn trope” and says “workers just don’t get it, and when I try to explain it they still don’t get it. Or they see it as a technical curiosity with no wider significance, or more likely just glaze over. Has anybody found a good way to put this argument so that the workers do get it?’ Has anyone bothered to think that maybe workers don’t get it because the SP argument on tax defies common sense?

    ALB, yes I have read Ricardo’s writing from Chapter 16 on taxation. I always feel a bit uneasy when, in answer to questions about the SP position on tax today, I am given remarks made by Ricardo in 1817, when no worker in the UK paid income tax and wages were at a minimum subsistence level (Ricardo was a Malthusian after all). Ricardo’s model is far removed from the reality of capitalist economies and their tax structures today. Because he strongly believed that wages and profits were always inversely related, then of course a tax on wages, because they could only be paid by the capitalist as part of the workers gross wage, will mean an equivalent fall in profits – effectively becoming a tax on profits. I can’t see how this helps answer my question above.
    I’ve just seen the two quotes on your last post ALB. Bax and Quelch say that the workers “..have nothing wherewith to pay taxes” (because their wage on average is at subsistence level). John Keracher, the US Marxist, made much the same point in 1935 when he said that because workers’ wages were always at subsistence level, they can’t pay taxes because they don’t have the necessary money: “They could pay taxes if wages were just about double what they are at present” he said. This commonsense claim rests on the primary assumption that average wages are at minimum subsistence level, a view held by both Ricardo and Marx , but it doesn’t bear upon my question because average wages in all advanced capitalist societies today are well above subsistence level.

    I think the MIA glossary statement is not too bad actually. It recognises that workers’ concern over tax levels is a genuine and justified concern. And this suggests to me that reducing tax inequality in capitalism is a feasible political aim for the working class. But crucially, it clearly implies that reducing income inequality under capitalism is not possible. For that, you would need socialism. Why can’t this be made the SPGB position, rather than persist with the abstruse and ill-defined views on taxation which you still hold?


    ‘because average wages in all advanced capitalist societies today are well above subsistence level.’

    I thought that the price of labour power (wages) was defined, like all other commodities, by the amount of labour time that creates and sustains it. Thus a highly skilled worker (surgeon, architect etc.) will receive higher wages than an unskilled worker because of the amount of training etc. involved (assuming his or her skills are needed by the market and so subject to the law of supply and demand). The ‘minimum wage’ does represent subsistence level and there are millions who receive this in our ‘advanced capitalist society’. In this context I don’t think the concept of an ‘average wage’ is relevant or helpful. I’m no economist so these are just my musings. Good debate.

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